By Walter Townsend
It’s been a turbulent 18 months for the side known as the Copper Bullets, and after qualifying for the 2010 African Cup of Nations with the second lowest points tally, they’ll have their work cut out to make an impact at the tournament.
Zambia will arrive in Angola set against a backdrop of internal malaise within the Zambian FA and a weakened squad as the management attempt to find the right balance between talent and team spirit. Set against the backdrop of a demanding Zambian public, who believes that their side are capable of challenging for outright victory at every tournament regardless of the opposition, it’s going to be a difficult challenge for the team to meet expectations.
Based on results, there is some basis for the exorbitantly high levels of expectation, as Zambia have held current African champions Egypt to draws on two separate occasions in recent memory. Firstly in the final group game of the 2008 African Cup of Nations and more recently in March 2009, when the pair met in Cairo for a World Cup qualifier, which resulted in a 1-1 draw.
Although these results certainly indicate that Zambia have some ability to compete with Africa’s very best, they should be viewed in context. The first result was achieved with Egypt already assured of qualification and top spot in the group, whilst following the second draw other qualifying results have been less gratifying since.
Zambia were beaten at home by Egypt and Algeria, who both finished a full eight points ahead of them in the final group standings, and Zambia could muster only a 1-0 home win against Rwanda and a 0-0 away draw against the weakest side in the group. The initial qualifying group results were also less than satisfactory with a defeat to Togo on neutral terrain, similarly struggling for form, and a disappointing 0-0 draw against Swaziland.
Pressure on the coach
With Zambia making it through to the 2010 African Cup of Nations with the second lowest total of any of the 15 qualifying teams, fans of the Copper Bullets are looking to apportion blame, and French coach Herve Renard has shouldered much of the criticism. The former assistant to Claude Le Roy at Ghana is something of a nomad with coaching spells in England, China and Africa on his CV. Since his arrival in Lusaka some 18 months ago, the 41-year-old has split opinion after stating that he didn’t believe that qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup was ever a realistic target.
Much of the optimism surrounding his appointment came from arguably Zambia’s greatest ever player Kalusha Bwalya as the most recent appointment to the position of head of the Zambia FA. Zambia’s record goal-scorer and only survivor of the 1994 air-disaster that killed potentially their greatest ever team, Bwalya led a new-look side to the brink of World Cup qualification and the finals of the 1994 African Cup of Nations despite the significant loss the country suffered. After playing spells in Belgium, the Netherlands and Mexico amongst others he was seen as the re-invigorator the Zambian team needed.
Nevertheless the appointment of Renard by Bwalya was seen as a gamble, but a clear statement that he was prepared to go his own way. Now that results have disappointed it would seem that it’s the Frenchman who is the target for abuse, rather than the legendary figure of Bwalya.
A chance to put things right
Perhaps disheartened by the lack of cohesion within the Zambian camp, Bwalya recently dismissed several members of the backroom staff close to the senior team following allegations that they leaked details of bonuses and premiums to the media.
After failing to claim the 2009 COSAFA Cup, a regional tournament held in Southern Africa in November losing to hosts Zimbabwe in the final after taking the lead, the expectation is that a response will be forthcoming in Angola. Zambia have twice made it to the final, including in 1994 in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy led by Bwalya on the pitch. Now involved in a technical capacity, the hope is that he can work his magic once again with Renard as coach to emulate past glories.
Goalkeepers – Kalilio Kakonje (Ama Zulu), Kennedy Mweene (Free State Stars), Jacob Banda (ZESCO United)
Defenders – Dennis Banda (Green Buffaloes), Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows), Hijani Homoonde (TP Mazembe), Emmanuel Mbola (Pyunik), Stophira Sunzu (Zanaco), Chintu Kampamba (Free State Stars), Thomas Nyrienda (Zanaco)
Midfielders – Francis Kasonde (Al-Suwaiq), Issac Chansa (Helsigborgs IF), Felix Katongo (Free State Stars), Noah Chivunta (Maritzburg United), Rainford Kalaba (Uniao de Leiria), William Njovou (Hapoel Kiryat Shmona), Clifford Mulenga (Mpumalanga Black Aces)
Attackers – Jacob Mulenga (FC Utrecht), Collins Mbesuma (Moroka Swallows), James Chamanga (Dalian Shide), Given Singuluma (TP Mazembe), Emmanuel Mayuka (Maccabi Tel Aviv)
Players to Watch
With a squad spread across the four corners of the world, from China to Sweden, Zambia are an eclectic bunch of footballers. There is nevertheless plenty of talent within the team, and Helsingborgs midfielder Issac Chansa is one such. The diminutive midfielder has performed creditably in the Allsvenskan since switching from South African football. A controversial figure at times, he was suspended by the South African league for attacking a linesman, Chansa has the ability and talent to stand against any of Africa’s best midfielders.
Jacob Mulenga from FC Utrecht is more than worth keeping an eye on over the course of the 2010 African Cup of Nations. With five goals in his last seven matches for the Dutch side, including a strike in an impressive 2-0 win over Ajax, Mulenga arrives in Angola in outstanding form. The ambitious Dutch side acquired Mulenga from the French Second Division over the summer, and he is pretty versatile deployable from both flanks or through the middle in a support role to a main centre-forward. If he keeps up this form much longer, the only question that will remain is for how long he will be plying his trade at De Nieuwe Galgenwaard.
13th Jan – Tunisia
17th Jan – Cameroon
21st Jan – Gabon
Drawn into one of the more open groups at the 2010 African Cup of Nations, Zambia certainly have the chance to make it through to the quarter-finals. The two key factors to progression will be their performance in the final match against Gabon and how they fare against big-boys Cameroon. They lost 5-1 to Cameroon two years ago, and will need to avoid such a heavy defeat, as goal-difference may well be a deciding factor in the final shake-up of what is certain to be a fiercely contested group.